Share this article

print logo

Jerry Sullivan: Zay Jones looks beyond flimsy fantasies

Zay Jones is a bright, engaging young man. He'd as soon chat about cinema and civil rights as football, which has been his passion since he began playing on the front lawn with his dad and two brothers as a little boy in Austin, Texas.

So Jones did the smart thing early in his rookie season with the Bills. He got off social media. No Twitter. No Facebook. No need to expose himself to the swirling venom that surrounded his slow start as an NFL receiver.

Don't get him started on fantasy football, that obsessive pastime where fans act as if every negative play is an attack on their own universe.

"I think social media's great," Jones said Wednesday. "But right now, it's not my focus. I don't like fantasy football. I don't think people who play are bad human beings. It's just that sometimes they forget there are human beings under these shoulder pads.

"The humanity is taken out of it. It's like a horse race where your horse gets hurt and you pick somebody else."

Jones has been the bane of fantasy this fall. Through his first five NFL games, he has five catches for 66 yards. Through his first five games as a college senior at East Carolina last season, he had 66 catches.

"I knew it was going to be hard," he said. "But it is a different game.  Do you know how many catches I had in my first five games as a freshman?"

Jones had 16 in his first five college games, six in his first three. He became the NCAA's career leader with 399 receptions. As a senior, he caught 158 passes for 1,746 yards. At the Senior Bowl, he dominated practices and had six catches for 68 yards.

The Bills traded up seven spots with the Rams to draft him 37th overall, swapping a third-rounder for a fifth in the deal. They saw him as a perfect complement to Sammy Watkins, a reliable No. 2 receiver.

Then the Bills traded Watkins and Anquan Boldin abruptly retired. They got Jordan Matthews to be their nominal No. 1, but now more was expected of Jones. He failed to catch a potential game-winner in Carolina, went without a catch against Denver, and the wolves howled.

'Zay Jones can't catch a cold,' frustrated Bills fans tweet

"People are going to say what they want," Jones said. "I've seen it. I've heard it, the worst possible things. I don't want to get into that. Just ugly stuff, man, even from kids. Little kids! I mean, I can't do anything about it. I can't control it, so I don't waste my energy on it anymore."

Fortunately, he wasn't on social media. His father, Robert Jones, was. Jones played middle linebacker for 10 years in the NFL, including four with the Cowboys. He was NFC defensive rookie of the year in 1992, the year Dallas won the first of two straight Super Bowls against the Bills.

Robert Jones had some vicious exchanges on Twitter with his son's critics, some who crushed him for hurting their fantasy teams.

"I'm not saying my son is more special than anybody else on that team or anybody's else kid," Robert Jones said. "But man, if they get to know Zay, they would not even talk about him that way. He's like one of the best people you'd ever want to meet."

Tim Graham: Zay Jones' father drops some mean tweets in defense of his son

Robert Jones conceded that Isaiah (Zay's given name) has a more even temperament and won't fly off the handle as readily as his old man.

"I tell him, 'Son, where did you get that from?' I learn a lot from my son. I'm a high-strung guy. You don't want to see me in traffic. As Zay got older, he would say 'Dad, here's why you shouldn't do this or that.' "

Robert loves to tell about the time squirrels were chewing the TV wires at their home in Texas. Pest control was summoned and put the varmints in a cage. Robert said he was planning to kill the squirrels when Zay intervened. "He's like, 'Dad! No, no, no! They've got a heart. They bleed!' "

Zay wishes more people felt the same about NFL players. Maybe if they saw the humanity of the guys under the helmets, they'd be less inclined to insult them on social media — or willing to understand the motivation behind the protests.

"I love our flag," he said. "I love what it represents. I like to think of everyone as equal. But people come from different places, born from different backgrounds and have seen different things. Everyone's different. You don't know what people have been through.

"You're going to yell and scream at a person? People fought for our right to take a knee, to have our opinions."

His father urged Zay to get to know everyone on the team, especially his quarterback. When Tyrod Taylor was asked who he's closest to on the team, the first player he mentioned was Zay. It's remarkable that a quarterback would forge a bond so quickly with a rookie.

Both are in difficult situations. Taylor is trying to prove himself as a franchise quarterback, while Jones struggles to prove he belongs on the field. At times, the kid has looked lost. He has several drops and his five catches came on 23 targets, a miserable figure.

There were NFL personnel people who felt Jones wouldn't get separation in the pros, that his college stats came largely against second-rate competition. He hasn't seemed ready for such an important role, and Jones admits he was placed in a difficult situation.

"Coming in, playing early, it's a tough thing to do," Jones said. "My dad had his struggles. Everyone has their little growing pains every day. Unfortunately, mine are being exposed. I'm out there, day one, starting in games. It's not like I can hide behind someone.

"No, Tyrod is looking for ME! It's not like I'm sitting on the sideline, coming in for a couple of plays. Everything is more exposed to people."

It's common for NFL wideouts to have a slow adjustment, even the legends. Terrell Owens had three catches in his first five games. Hines Ward, Steve Smith and Cris Carter had two. Isaac Bruce had six. Every one of them wound up with 1,000 catches.

Andre Reed on Bills rookie WR Zay Jones: 'He's going to make a lot of plays this year'

Robert Jones reminds his son of such things. He has two other football-playing sons. Cayleb, his eldest, is a wideout on the Vikings practice squad. Youngest son Levi plays linebacker for USC. Zay was the one who didn't play for a major college. It didn't come easy.

"No, no," he said. "I came into high school at — no kidding — 5' 6" and maybe 100 pounds. I only got offered by one school my senior year. Being from Austin, having contact with all these Texas schools — Texas, Baylor, TCU A&M, Houston, SMU, I could go on forever — I didn't get an offer from any of them, and I wanted to stay in Texas.

"I took that to heart. I took it personally, because Texas football is huge. So my mindset was I was going to go out and be one of the best receivers in college, and I did it."

Zay has been underestimated before. Shortest guy on the middle school football team who became MVP; too small for varsity as a sophomore, best player on JVs; passed over while high school teammates got major offers, all-time NCAA receiving leader.

"I tell him to remember all those things," Robert Jones said. "All those things. A small kid from East Carolina, nobody knew anything about, faced all the doubt in the world that he was going to be anybody. I said, 'You proved everybody wrong. Now you're in the same state.' "

Fair or not, it's a state of gathering public doubt. Maybe too much was expected, but at some point Jones needs to justify the organization's hope and show that he's not the latest in a long, troubling line of Bills draft busts. He feels the trials have made him stronger.

"How can your confidence not build?" he said. "The season hasn't gone the way I wanted, but I'm going through it for a reason. I know it's going to build my character, build my confidence moving forward. I have another opportunity to go out there Sunday to erase everything that's happened."

Stevie Johnson offers encouragement to Zay Jones, from one pass-dropper to another

There are no comments - be the first to comment